By deposing Richard II, Henry IV precipitated the dynastic wars, known as The Wars of the Roses, fought by the Lancasters and the Yorks, descendants of two brothers, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster (1340 -1399), and Edmund Langley, the Duke of York (1341-1402). These wars ended in 1485 with the Battle of Bosworth Field and the death of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III (b. 1452). The rule of the Tudors began when Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond was crowned as King Henry VII (1457-1509) and then united the houses of Lancaster and York by marrying Elizabeth of York (1486-1503).
The rule of Henry VII oversaw a shift from a Medieval landlord and serf agricultural model to a commercial model. With the Parliament, Henry VII enacted laws and statutes that fostered England’s economic growth, including protectionist and bullionist statutes, and giving supremacy to England’s wool trade and cloth industry. Along with this shift came an increase in city populations, particularly that of London which would, over the course of the Tudor era, become the largest city in Europe and a leading port of trade.
Henry VII also oversaw a centralization of court power and the development of the King’s Council, or Star Chamber, by which the monarchy wielded increasing authority over the nobility. The social upheaval of the Medieval era, with its vacuum of offices after the Black Death and resistance of hierarchy embodied in Chaucer’s Miller, shifted to a new hierarchy and authority under Henry VII. He encouraged “New Men” at court, that is, men from relatively humble origins who gained increasing opportunities. And he limited the nobility, particularly by binding them through debts and obligations, or recognisances.
Henry VII used money to cement his authority; he accrued wealth through taxes, loans, benevolences, Church grants, and even feudal obligations. One instance of the latter was his receiving 30,000 pounds for knighting his son Arthur (1486-1502)—two years after Arthur’s death. By many of these same streams, he financed wars in France and suppression of rebellions at home. England lost its claims to French territory, retaining Calais during Henry VII’s reign but losing it during Henry VIII’s (1491-1547). Although conflict diminished on the Continent, it increased at home, particularly with Scotland.
After Henry VII’s death, the crown passed peacefully to Henry VIII. He corrected some of his father’s monetary abuses, executing Sir Richard Empson (c. 1450-1510) and Edmund Dudley (c. 1462-1510), themselves New Men who collected taxes for Henry VII. Wars with Scotland, Ireland, France, and Spain marked Henry VIII’s reign, as did his marrying six women. Although Henry VIII’s wars depleted the wealth he inherited, he recovered it with the dissolution of the monasteries and the lands he consequently appropriated. The Reformation he initiated in England stemmed from Henry VIII’s concern for succession (fear of another dynastic war) and desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), who had not provided a male heir. When the Pope rejected his annulment, Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic Church and made himself head of the Church of England, confirmed by the Act of Supremacy in 1534.
From his marriages, Henry VIII gained three heirs. Their successive rules led to a short rebellion, after Edward VI’s (1442-1483) death, and the execution of hundreds of Protestants during a counter-reformation under Mary I (1516-1558). Elizabeth I (1533-1603) ushered England into a Golden Age. She resolved the religious discord by becoming head of the Protestant (Anglican) Church of England. She navigated foreign affairs by considering various possible husbands, from Spain, Sweden, Austria, and France. Yet she remained married to England. Her position was threatened by her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), who plotted Elizabeth I’s assassination in hopes of ascending the throne and returning England to Catholicism. Elizabeth I had Mary executed before facing a long-threatened assault by the Spanish Armada. The last years of Elizabeth I’s reign saw Irish rebellion under Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone (1550-1616).
Before Henry VII ascended the throne, William Caxton (c.1422-1491) introduced the printing press to England. The consequent increase in number and decrease in cost of books incentivized reading and fostered literacy. Under Henry VII, England shifted from what had been a bilingual nation, with French or Latin as the courtly language and English the vernacular. The Renaissance, a movement coinciding with the reign of all the Tudors, fostered vernacular literatures spurred by the recovery and study of classical texts. The stability that Henry VII brought to England and that his son protected—even at the expense of Catherine of Aragon, Roman Catholicism, and Anne Boleyn (c. 1501-1536)—expanded individual learning (mainly for men) and intellectual thought. Renaissance humanism, particularly the English version of it, emphasized education of the individual, be he courtier or gentleman. But for the English, that education was linked to Christianity. And the individual’s role in Christian faith, worship, understanding, and expression, shaped the religious controversies that marked the Tudor era. Humanist thinking influenced Thomas More’s (1478-1535) political and theological critiques in Utopia. His understanding of Christianity determined his refusal to accept Henry VIII as supreme head of the church—and his consequent execution.
More wrote Utopia in Latin, reflecting thereby the humanist interest in classical learning. The Reformation, the beginning of which he witnessed, led to close and individual scrutiny of ideologies and theologies, a scrutiny which itself shaped England’s consciousness as a nation. And the subordination of individual understanding and expression to the classical models in Latin of Cicero (106-43 BCE), Virgil (70-19 BCE), Terence (185-159 BCE), Plautus (c. 254-185 BCE), Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) and others that formal education relied on unsurprisingly was countered by the development of a national literature not in Latin but in English, and in a variety of genres.
The Tudor era saw great development in English poetry and drama, with such modes as pastoral and lyric, and such forms as epic and tragedy. Edmund Spenser followed Chaucer by shaping ideal poetic diction, meter, and rhyme in English; he fashioned English sonnets in his Amoretti, drawing on Wyatt and Surrey’s introduction of the Italian sonnet to England . Spenser also wrote an English epic, the most ambitious and weighty of classical genres. He intended his epic The Faerie Queene to be a national poem, comparable to Virgil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 BCE). And he used the great national myth/hero of King Arthur as his epic’s model for the ideal gentleman or noble person, the epitome of Christian virtues. Elizabeth I also appears in this epic in many female roles, particularly Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, Arthur’s beloved. And, starting with Henry VII, who named his first-born son Arthur, all the Tudors claimed descent from King Arthur.
English drama developed in part from classical and neoclassical drama. William Shakespeare’s comedies owe much to Plautus and Seneca; indeed, his Comedy of Errors (1594) takes its plot from Plautus’s The Menaechmi, or The Twins. English drama also developed in part from the Medieval cycles and morality plays. Like Everyman, Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus struggles between good and evil. Shakespeare’s tragedies similarly trace the Tudor era’s growth of personal religion, with his characters demonstrating the shift from Medieval Fortuna, fate, or destiny to reason and responsibility. His characters are free to make choices but are held accountable for those choices, either by people or principles. And if a character/ individual has to make decisions and act accordingly, they always face the possibility of making wrong decisions. Like Faustus, Shakespeare’s Hamlet fears behaving wrongly and suffers from a divided self as he tries to align his own actions and choices with divinity. Almost more than any other author, Shakespeare realizes the power of the English language to promote (or draw upon) a sense of national identity. Indeed, his use of the English language shapes a sense of humanity itself.